Vatican Museum the Stanze and the Cappella Niccolina (Raphaël and Fra Angelico)
We walk down the long halls toward the south to arrive at Raphael’s Stanze.
Many images of the Stanze can be found on the Web Gallery of Art website. The four Stanze are fairly small, adjoining rooms. The Stanze can be seen on the internet here. The walls and ceilings were painted by Raphael. The second and third room, Stanza della Segnatura and Stanza di Eliodoro, are were Raphael’s best work can be found. The Stanza della Segnatura was the private study of Pope Julius II, the pope who commissioned the 26-year-old Raphael to paint this cycle of frescos. This is also the room were the pope signed the verdicts of the Segnatura, the church’s supreme tribunal. Standing in this relatively small room, we can see that it’s not just the walls that were painted, but the ceilings as well.
|Stanza della Segnatura|
Across from the wall with the School of Athens is the Disputa del Sacramento. The Parnassus and the Cardinal Virtues are depicted on the two walls with windows.
School of Athens
Youtube Khan Academy (10.42 minutes)
Youtube Columbia University New York (18.04 minutes)
Stanza della Segnatura
Raphael started with the Stanza della Segnatura. The frescos in this stanza are in no way connected to the Segnatura. Moreover, the name Disputation of the Holy Sacrament is incorrect. The theme of the fresco is the triumph of the faith and the truth.
|Disputation of the Holy Sacrament|
figures in the Parnassus
|‘The Parnassus is a fresco painting by the Italian High Renaissance artist Raphael in the Raphael Rooms (“Stanze di Raffaello”), in the Palace of the Vatican in Rome, painted at the commission of Pope Julius II. It was probably the second wall of the Stanza della segnatura to be painted, in about 1511, after La disputa and before The School of Athens, which occupy other walls of the room.
The whole room shows the four areas of human knowledge: philosophy, religion, poetry and law, with The Parnassus representing poetry. The fresco shows the mythological Mount Parnassus where Apollo dwells; he is in the centre playing an instrument (a contemporary lira da braccio rather than a classical lyre), surrounded by the nine muses, nine poets from antiquity, and nine contemporary poets. Apollo, along with Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, inspired poets.
Raphael used the face of Laocoön from the classical sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, excavated in 1506 and also in the Vatican for his Homer (in dark blue robe to the left of centre), expressing blindness rather than pain Two of the female figures in the fresco have been said to be reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam, Euterpe and Sappho, who is named on a scroll she holds Sappho is the only female poet shown, presumably identified so that she is not confused with a muse; she is a late addition who does not appear in the print by Marcantonio Raimondi that records a drawing for the fresco. The window below the fresco Parnassus frames the view of Mons Vaticanus, believed to be sacred to Apollo. Humanists, such as Biondo, Vegio, and Albertini, refer to the ancient-sun god of the Vatican.’
The fresco entitled the School of Athens is about scientific truth. The two frescos on the windowed walls are about beauty and the cardinal virtues. In the tondi on the vaults of this room you will see the four personifications of philosophy, poetry, theology and justice.
In the School of Athens Plato and Aristotle are standing in the middle side by side. Plato, who has the face of Leonardo da Vinci, points up with his finger. Aristotle’s hand points forward. Plato assumed a higher reality behind the earthly world: the world of ideas (Youtube: the cave 3.10 minutes). He was deliberately placed on the right, in those days a place of honour. Aristotle’s philosophy (he holds his Ethics in his hand) is much more down to earth and much more concrete.
picture: Frans Vandewalle
The interesting thing about this fresco is that it contains many of Raphael’s contemporaries. The painter also included himself, in the far bottom right corner of the image plane: the second figure from the right that is looking at you.
| Raphael as Apelles
The bearded man sitting at a table, who supports his head with one head and holds a feather in the other (contemporary footwear), is Herakleitos (a portrait of Michelangelo). We know that Raphael saw part of the ceiling that Michelangelo was painting before it’s completion. The way he depicted Michelangelo in this fresco looks suspiciously similar to the way Michelangelo depicted figures on his ceiling. It is probably no coincidence that Herakleitos was depicted as Michelangelo.
|Raphael Michelangelo as Heraclitus
the School of Athens
After the first part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel had been unveiled, Raphael in 1511 made one more change to his School of Athens. He was deeply impressed by the figures Michelangelo had painted in the Sistine Chapel. The chapel was close to the private quarters of Julius II, the Stanze, where Raphael was working on his frescos. One year after the completion of this fresco, Raphael decided after seeing the first section of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to add one more figure to his work. Raphael proceeded as follows.
He made a free-hand drawing with a piece of red chalk on the painted plaster below Plato and Aristotle. He then copied the image by placing a sheet of oilpaper against the wall, so that the chalk lines were copied onto it. The outline in chalk on this sheet was used to make a cartoon which was reapplied to the wall after the original intonaco had been hacked out and replaced with a fresh layer of plaster. He then in one single day painted the hunched up, introverted philosopher known as the pensieroso, ‘the thinker’.
|He made a free-hand drawing with a piece of red chalk on the painted plaster below Plato and Aristotle. He then copied the image by placing a sheet of oilpaper against the wall, so that the chalk lines were copied onto it. The outline in chalk on this sheet was used to make a cartoon which was reapplied to the wall after the original intonaco had been hacked out and replaced with a fresh layer of plaster. He then in one single day painted the hunched up, introverted philosopher known as the pensieroso, ‘the thinker’.|
Ross King, The Pope’s Heaven: Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2003 page 267.
Both Heraclits and Michelangelo were not exactly cheerful characters. The basilica in which Raphael placed the philosophers and scientists was clearly influenced by Bramante, a friend and contemporary of Raphael’s. One the far left we find Pythagoras; he is writing in a book. Pythagoras and Plato greatly influence the doctrine of proportions that the Greeks also applied to architecture and sculpture. The man in the turban not far from Pythagoras is Averroës. This Muslim scientist wrote extensive comments on the works of Aristotle. On the left is Epicurus, the man with the vine leaves. The boy next to Epicurus who is looking at you, is Federico Gonzaga, who at the time was being held at the papal court. Also included is Julius II’s cousin, the tall man in a white cloak just to the right of Herakleitos. The man who is leaning back on the steps and connects the two groups at the bottom left and bottom right is the cynic Diogenes. At the bottom of the group on the right Euclid (a portrait of Bramante) is explaining a mathematical problem on a small slate. On Euclid’s cloak the letters R.V.S.M. can be discerned. These letters are an abbreviation of Raphael Urbinus Sua Manu; this is how the painter signed his work.
Quite often, the museum is so busy that the crowd is ‘pushed’ through the halls. We probably will not have much time to look at the frescos, but hopefully will be able to take a good look at the third stanza (the Expulsion of Heliodorus
|Stanza of Heliodores|
The frescos in the stanza of Heliodorus (Web Gallery of Art) were painted between 1512 and 1514. On the walls of this room you will see the Meeting of Leo the Great and Atilla, and across from this fresco the Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple.
|Expulsion of Heliodorus|
The two windowed walls feature the Mass at Bolsena and the Deliverance of St Peter.
What is interesting is that on Sunday you visited the Mamertinium where the cell is located where St Peter was held prisoner. Raphael painted a prison cell that is quite different from the one that you saw.
At the time that Raphael painted this stanza, Leo X had just succeeded his predecessor Julius II in 1513. This was bound to have consequences. It is known that Leo X insisted that he, not Julius, was to be depicted. The Expulsion of Heliodorus, the Mass at Bolsena and the Deliverance of St Peter are counted among Raphael’s best work. The Mass at Bolsena depicts the transubstantiation of the sacred host during the consecration (the belief that during the celebration of mass the host and the wine actually become the flesh and blood of Christ). A priest who doubted whether this was actually true, was celebrating Mass at Bolsena when the host began to bleed. The man on his knees who is looking at the sign from above is Julius II.
Mass at Bolsena
We will also take a brief look at the Stanza dell’Incendio (Web Gallery of Art). The subjects of this stanza, which was painted between 1514 and 1517, were decided by Pope Leo X. We will only look at the Fire in the Borgo (the district we’re in now). The figure on the left who is carrying an old man on his shoulders was used by Bernini for his sculpture ‘Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius’ that we saw earlier in the Villa Borghese. The Sala di Costantino belongs to the other Stanze, and yet Raphael had almost no part in its decoration. He only made a few sketches as can be seen below.
There is another really nice chapel that is usually fairly quiet; the chapel of Nicolas V. It can be reached by a door in the Sala dei Palafrenieri (floor plan number 6). This small space was the private chapel of Nicolas V. Between 1447 and 1449, the monk Fra Angelico decorated the chapel with frescos that tell the stories of St Lawrence and St Stephen. Ground plan of the chapel and the schedule of the fresco cycle.
Youtube Cappella Niccolina (1.41 minutes)
chapel of Nicolas V
Good images of this cycle of frescos can be found on the Web Gallery of Art website. Looking at Fra Angelico’s frescos, you will notice the differences with Raphael’s work. When we are there, we will try to clearly put this difference into words (frescoes on the three walls).
The scenes on the upper half depict the story of St Stephan and those on the lower half the life story of St Lawrence. St Lawrence meets Pope Sixtus II in one of these frescos, but the pontiff was given the face of the person who commissioned this cycle of frescos: Nicholas V. Of course, the torture of St Lawrence is also depicted. You can see him lifting his arm when he is lying on the iron grid where he is being roasted by flames. If we are to believe the stories that are told about this brave Christian, then this is the moment where St Lawrence cries that he should be turned over because he is already done on one side.
We will now continue to the Sistine Chapel to look at Michelangelo’s famous frescos.